Full pad practices are underway and the first two installments of my little preview are done as well. What I’m doing now is touching on the areas I have yet to cover – special teams, coaching and incoming freshmen. All three could be strengths for Rutgers this coming year, and only one appears to me to be worrisome. Which one is it? Read on and find out.

Special Teams: You didn’t have to go far. This is the area of concern. Kick returns and punt returns should actually be pretty good, since there is a lot of potential talent waiting to perform there, including sophomores Kordell Young and Tim Brown, along with freshman Mason Robinson (more on him in a bit). Kicking should also be pretty strong, with Jeremy Ito returning. He had a tough time at the Texas Bowl, but those were also the worst field conditions imaginable. When they’re good – like they were at South Florida – he’s capable of doing things like kicking 53-yard field goals, as he did in that game. Overall, he was 4-5 on field goal attempts of at least 40 yards, but had some trouble on shorter attempts; still, he is firmly entrenched as one of the country’s better kickers and the team is lucky to have him. In addition, the team was able to block several kicks last year, including one at a crucial time against UConn, when the block was recovered for a touchdown that essentially sealed the win.

The worrisome spots, on the other hand, are punting and kick coverage. Joe Radigan did a very good job punting last year after years of inconsistency, and the team will miss the performance he gave in 2006. Junior college transfer Teddy Dellaganna was brought in to help the punting game, and he will get every chance to win the job – Ito is also capable of punting, but the coaching staff would rather not risk overextending him. This, however, is not as potentially troublesome as kick coverage. Kick coverage was the worst area of the entire team last year over the last five games (possibly due in part to Ito’s leg tiring and therefore being less effective on kickoffs). Through the first eight games, it was pretty decent, save for allowing a 62-yard punt return to Ohio. However, beginning with the Louisville game (yes, there was something bad about it), kick coverage suffered a mini-implosion. They allowed a 100-yard kickoff return TD to Louisville. They allowed a 51-yard kick return to West Virginia. They allowed a 50-yard kick return to Kansas State in the Texas Bowl, as well as a 76-yard punt return touchdown that was KSU’s only TD of that lopsided game. All this doesn’t even get into the last kick return against Louisville, when Rutgers nearly blew the game by allowing another return touchdown, until Jeremy Ito saved it by getting in front of the returner and not allowing him to advance and eventually be tackled. This play is seldom mentioned, but if Ito hadn’t been in the right spot, you’d hear plenty about it – and Louisville might be defending national champions. If kick coverage improves in ’07, not only is there the obvious benefit of preventing teams from directly scoring on special teams, but it will allow the defensive unit, which is replacing some key starters, to have a somewhat easier time by not having to work with as many short fields. Improved kick coverage could be vital to Rutgers taking the next step up this year; it is imperative that it gets better.

Incoming freshmen: Rutgers signed their best recruiting class yet in February, and several members of it will have a chance to play right away. The most heralded member, Anthony Davis, will get a look throughout camp at offensive line, where there is an opening at guard. Davis needs to lose weight, but he has the talent to succeed. Other potential impact freshmen on offense include tailback Mason Robinson, who will also be getting a long look as a return man, and tight end Fabian Ruiz, who is in the race almost by default, as there is no set starter and Schiano doesn’t seem to think anyone has stepped up satisfactorily to this point. Defensively, guys like Alex Silvestro at defensive end, Wayne Thomas at tackle, and Manny Abreu at linebacker will get their chances, but the two guys that may be looked at the most are both defensive backs: cornerback Al-Majid Hutchins and safety Joe LeFeged. Hutchins will be in the mix for playing time partially because Dimitri Linton, who had been expected to play at corner, left the team due to injury. LeFeged, on the other hand, is a flat-out beast. Safety is one of the strongest areas on the team due to starters Courtney Greene and Ron Girault, but LeFeged found himself working with the second team early on in practice. He was named player of the year for the Washington, D.C. metro area as a high school senior, and he has been flashing that talent early on, earning praise from Schiano and a chance to play right away. He is a guy to watch for this year and beyond.

Coaching: This is the team’s most important strength – not just because of what they will help the team accomplish in ’07, but for the work they’ve put in to get the team to the point of being relevant in the first place. It starts with Schiano – he has done things with the program no one thought possible, and has it on firmer footing than it’s ever been on. In addition, he has really come along as a gameday coach, to the point where he is becoming a force in that area. Let’s also not forget that he’s the defensive coordinator as well, and that the unit’s play has taken a dramatic turn for the better since he took on that role. Offensive coordinator John McNulty has worked in the NFL and turned down Miami during the offseason – just like Schiano. Defensive line coach Cary Godette also has NFL experience and gets the most out of his players. However, no assistant coach on the staff has been more vital to the success of the last couple years, and the promise of continued success down the road, than offensive line coach Kyle Flood. In two years at Rutgers (he’s entering his third this season), he has transformed the offensive line from one of the team’s main weaknesses to one of its main strengths. He is the main reason that the line should continue to thrive even after this season, despite the fact that three starters will be gone in ’08. Flood has earned glowing praise from all who have worked with him, and his results speak for themselves. To get to the level at which Schiano aspires to be, Rutgers must retain coaches of Flood’s caliber, and so far, they are doing it.

All told, Rutgers has some challenges this year. They have to replace productive members of their offense and defense. Both lines were at least partially depleted by graduation, and while that’s hard to avoid in the college game, it doesn’t make the job of finding replacements less daunting, especially for players the caliber of, say, Darnell Stapleton and Ramel Meekins. The linebacker and tight end spots continue to be question marks, with Schiano still frustrated by the tight ends’ lack of production thus far in training camp to the point he’s still threatening to play without one. However, the level of the returning talent plus the level of talent of the freshmen still could very well be the best Rutgers has ever had. Two gimmes early in the season (Buffalo, Norfolk State) could afford the team some time to gel, although Navy, the team RU plays in between those two, is always tough to prepare for and play. If Rutgers plays to their full potential, it could well find itself in another down-to-the-wire battle for the Big East title…and of course, the battle would culminate in an impossible road game at Louisville on November 29. That, however, is looking far ahead. Before that showdown in Louisville, there is plenty to look forward to and be excited about when it comes to Rutgers football in 2007, and really, considering where this program has been, that’s all a fan could ever ask for at the outset of a season.

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